Restorative justice in controversial settings

Bullying knows no boundaries

A tragic case brought bullying to the headlines in Hong Kong in 1997. a 14-year-old, Luk Chi-wai, was tortured to death after suggesting to a fellow-pupil who had been beaten up that he should report it to the police. Thirteen boys were sentenced, 4 to life imprisonment and the rest to long terms. If this was meant as a deterrent, it failed; bullying continued, and in one case another teenager was kicked and punched in a classroom while classmates filmed the attack with their mobile phones.

Professor Dennis Wong, of City University, Hong Kong, reported this (and showed some of the video clips) to a British Society of Criminology conference on restorative justice at Nottingham Trent University. on 30 January 2007. Large-scale studies of pupils and teachers in 29 secondary and 47 primary schools found that 17 and 24 per cent of secondary and primary pupils admitted bullying, while 18 and 31 per cent, respectively, had been bullied.

Wong selected 4 secondary schools, interviewing about 200 to 350 pupils in each; School A had gone a long way towards a whole-school restorative approach, B and C partly, and D had not really adopted it. Tabulated data show that after the test period, significant differences were found on factors such as positive perceptions, sense of belonging, lack of empathy and different forms of bullying.

Wong, himself a former youth worker, says that as bullying often entails a cycle of revenge, whole-school restorative intervention should be used, and can reduce it markedly where there is a high level of support from the school management.

NOMS and R J

What does the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) do for restorative justice? Brian Stout, of De Montfort University, Leicester, explained how the government appointed Lord Carter, a businessman and chair of the English Sports Council, to review correctional services in England and Wales. His report, Managing offenders, reducing crime (2003) proposed to combine the prison and probation services as NOMS, with ten Regional Offender Managers; supervising offenders was to be separated from providing interventions. It was proposed that a single person should be responsible for each offender all the time he is in the criminal justice system, and the idea of ‘contestability’ was introduced, by which the private and voluntary sectors would be invited to compete to manage offenders in the community and even to manage prisons, but Martin Narey, former director of the prison service, said that this cannot succeed unless prisoner numbers are at a manageable level. There were some 750 responses to these proposals, of which only 10 were in favour. The government is nevertheless going ahead with Carter’s proposals, as announced in the response of the then Home Secretary David Blunkett, Reducing crime – changing lives (Home Office, 2003). To begin with, 5 per cent of the probation budget is to be used to buy in services, rising to 10 per cent.

Following the government’s strategy document on restorative justice, it stated in its ‘Workstrand 5’ that restorative interventions would have an equivalent place with rehabilitation, punishment and public protection, and that where restorative justice projects are available, offender managers will be expected to assess offenders’ suitability for them and broker their involvement as appropriate’ (emphasis added). Its consultation document Together we can… on the involvement of communities in civil renewal contains a section on restorative justice, which it says can address hurt to victims and help offenders come to terms with their actions, possibly with face-to-face meetings; but the document is vague and lukewarm, Dr Stout said. Once again it describes the findings of international research as ‘mixed’, and it does not say what it means by ‘working towards’ restorative approaches. It admits that victim work does not fit easily into targets and timescales.

An Offender management model by Tony Grapes, issued in 2006, says that meeting the needs of victims through restorative approaches is an objective of offender management, and offender managers are encouraged to pursue a restorative outcome – but not in all cases – and they will have no direct contact with victims except to pass on information about the offender. Labour costs, however, are high. Unpaid work or voluntary work in custody are described as indirectly restorative approaches.

Asking how we will judge whether NOMS is restorative, Stout considered Bazemore and Schiff’s criteria: the principle of repair, stakeholder participation and the transformation of government roles and relationships. They did not include involvement of the community. For Kathleen Daly, the essentials were repair of harm, dialogue and negotiation, which do not figure in NOMS. NOMS’s own definition is indirect reparation, managing risk, and victims being worked with by someone else. This prompts the question, Does restorative justice have an equivalent place in NOMS to more familiar interventions?

RJ in NI

Northern Ireland is making progress in a restorative direction, according to Jonathan Doak of the University of Sheffield and David O’Mahony of Durham University. It was built into the youth justice system by the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. It follows the New Zealand model, and requires courts to refer cases except where a life sentence is imposed. Victims are present in 24 per cent of restorative conferences, and victim representatives in another 34 per cent. Seventy-nine per cent of victims said they attended because they wanted to help the young person. Lawyers can take part, but only to advise: the young person must speak for him or herself. Normally the agreed contract is the sentence, but courts can refer a case back to a conference, or reject the agreement and pass a sentence, but it must give reasons. One magistrate who imposed a sentence after an agreement had been reached was moved..

Until now there has been little engagement with community-led restorative justice schemes, but the Nationalists (Sinn Fein) have now said that they will co-operate with the police, so there may be less resistance to bringing in the community. Jonathan Doak thought that restorative justice may boost democracy and civil society, importing its values to society at large. He thought however that the state-led sector is taking over from the voluntary movement. There has been support among police, probation officers and magistrates (except one), and there is talk of working with adult offenders and instituting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

R J and imprisonment

Restorative justice is a social movement to change the response to crime, said Professor Gerry Johnstone of the University of Hull. It has however had little success in dislodging prison. Restorative justice is in a sense the opposite of imprisonment: it does not aim to impose harm on offenders but encourages them to repair the harm they have caused. It includes rather than excludes; it involves stakeholders rather than experts, and aims to find a solution which benefits all.

Prison, in contrast, requires people to obey rules, not to take responsibility, it prevents reparation, and makes it harder for the community to integrate ex-offenders. The restorative justice movement has done little to reduce imprisonment, as Russ Immarigeon has pointed out1: the reduction of imprisonment should be included among the aims of restorative justice; professionals should be educated; it should work with prison-bound offenders; and research should look at diversion from prison.

Now however there are requests for restorative justice in prisons. This appears to be a contradictory and dangerous idea, which could make prison more attractive to sentencers and legitimize it. It could however lead to a new model of imprisonment, not just warehousing: prisons would be not for retribution and exclusion but places where repairs are made. This would require a new relationship between prisons and the community, and a new purpose of imprisonment – to prepare prisoners for return to the community. Prison would be an opportunity to work for the benefit of others (as in the Inside-Out project) and think of victims; it would also be used to deal with conflict within prisons. It can make valuable contributions, for example the Albert Park in the northern English town Middlesbrough which has been refurbished by prisoners.

These ideas would lead to creative tension between prison traditions and the attitudes of restorative justice advocates, and rejuvenate the early ideals. It could also change community attitudes.

Martin Wright


1 Russ Immarigeon (2004) ‘What is the place of punishment and imprisonment in restorative justice?’ In: H Zehr and B Toews, eds. Critical issues in restorative justice. Monsey, NY, Criminal Justice Press, and Cullompton, Willan Publishing.